Consequences of Poor Mental Health
Mental health problems are characterized by the extent to which they disrupt an individual’s ability to function. In fact, many consider the inability to learn, work, or participate fully in life to be one of the hallmarks of having a mental illness. But mental health issues generally, including those not severe enough to be labeled by professionals as “illnesses,” can still interfere with functioning across all areas of life. The consequences of mental illness and poor mental health, however, can be reduced or even eliminated by reaching students early and connecting them with appropriate supports and treatment.
Social, Emotional, and Physical Health Impacts
Students with poor mental health can experience problems related to adjusting to college in their first-year and beyond. Being away from home and having to make decisions for the first time can lead some students to feel so overwhelmed that they are unable to cope. The loneliness and isolation that often accompany mental health problems like depression can result in interpersonal problems that make it difficult for some students to relate to others. These adjustment-related difficulties may be especially pronounced among students who come to campus already having been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Mental health issues can prevent students from getting the most out of their college experience. They often stand in the way of students becoming active, engaged, and productive members of their classrooms and the larger campus community. For instance, students with mental health problems may lack the same level of curiosity, engagement, and involvement found in their peers without these difficulties. Students with poor mental health are likely to experience diminished quality of life as a result.
Students who have mental health issues can also encounter problems in their physical health. In many cases, mental health problems are associated with sleep difficulties that make it difficult for students to concentrate and stay alert. Researchers have also found that negative emotional states, like depressed mood or feeling overwhelmed, can lower the body’s ability to fight disease. As a result, students with poor mental health may be sicker and use more health care services.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of poor mental health is when a student goes as far as attempting or committing suicide. Suicide, which is considered to be the second-leading cause of death among young people, may be the tragic result or consequence of undetected or untreated mental health problems.
Students report experiencing a host of academic difficulties as a result of having poor mental health. According to the 2005 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA), a considerable proportion of students said that mental health problems affected their individual academic performance, including receiving an incomplete, dropping a course, or receiving a lower grade in a class, on an exam, or an important project. In fact, four out of the five leading factors found to negatively affect students’ individual performance in the last year were related to mental health. These included stress (ranked first), sleep (third), concern for a troubled friend or family member (fourth), and depression, anxiety disorder, or seasonal affective disorder (fifth).
These findings are not surprising in light of other data that illustrate how poor mental health negatively impacts academic success. For example, students with mental health problems like anxiety or depression tend to have lower grades and are more likely than their peers without these problems to drop-out of school prematurely. In fact, researchers estimate that approximately 5 percent of all college students, or more than 4.29 million people, never finished school because of a mental illness.
Some authors have suggested that attrition is more often caused by emotional rather than academic factors, which suggests that students who are emotionally healthy may be more capable of meeting the demands of college.
Campus and Societal Impacts
The academic consequences of poor mental health go well beyond the individual student. Institutions of higher education can experience the impact of undetected or untreated mental health problems in terms of lost tuition, fees, or alumni donations. In more serious cases, such as when a student attempts or commits suicide, colleges and universities may face lawsuits and encounter negative publicity for years to come.
The impact of poor mental health among college students can also have devastating consequences on future employers and society-at-large. Even if students with mental health problems are able to reach graduation, studies have shown that early work experiences can be stifled by having poor mental health and valuable work-related skills and proficiencies can be lost as a result. As future workers and leaders, students may be less productive and take more absences from work upon entering the workforce. Thus, the potential economic and societal burden of mental health problems can be enormous.